The Bible’s extraordinary discovery, notes gifted writer Adam Kirsch, “is that the memory of slavery – which to other peoples would be a great shame, to be forgotten as quickly as possible – can be made the engine of humility and sympathy.” The way we orient ourselves personally, interpersonally, and politically is guided by this remarkable discovery.
Yet why doesn’t the Torah outlaw slavery altogether the way it purges idolatry? Here too we come to an extraordinary discovery. Instead of erasing such an odious institution that degrades humanity, Scripture weaves a responsibility-rich path toward its self-erasure.
Beginning at the outset of this week’s portion of Torah, the rights and needs of the slave are elevated. Any physical mistreatment could lead to a slave’s freedom (Ex. 21:26-27). The more the Torah says on the subject, the more the slave’s essential humanity and dignity are reinforced. Holidays are to be shared. Freedoms are to be offered. Indeed, by the end of the Book of Job, we read an astonishing assertion of the slave’s absolute equality. “Did I ever reject the just cause of my male or female servants during contentious times? Did not God who made me in the stomach make him too, Did not one God form both of us in the womb?” (Job 31:13-15).
As human beings, our self-worth comes from a sense that we are needed. Feeling needed and necessary promotes a person’s dignity. Perhaps, asserts faith-and-thought-leader Arthur Brooks, we should judge the merit of any policy by whether it makes those it seeks to serve feel more needed or less needed.
So why doesn’t the Bible eliminate slavery altogether? Because when we are able to climb out of it we can prove capable of eviscerating it. The biblical project seeks to empower human responsibility. So much depends on how we respond to what life throws our way.
Consider the most troubling times in your life. What did you make them become an engine for?